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CITIES IN CRISIS: New Report and National Campaign Focus on the High School Dropout Crisis in the United States

"When more than one million students a year drop out of high school, it's more than a problem, it's a catastrophe."

Only about half of all students from the nation’s fifty largest cities graduate from high school, according to a new report released by the America’s Promise Alliance (APA) and prepared by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

The report, Cities in Crisis: A Special Analytic Report on High School Graduation, was released at an April 1 event that also kicked off APA’s national campaign to reduce high school dropout rates and prepare children for college, work, and life. The campaign will conduct a series of dropout prevention summits in every state and in fifty communities over the next two years. These summits are designed to increase awareness about the dropout crisis and to develop specific plans to help local high schools raise graduation rates.

“When more than one million students a year drop out of high school, it’s more than a problem, it’s a catastrophe,” said General Colin Powell, founding chair of APA. “Our economic and national security are at risk when we fail to educate the leaders and the workforce of the future. It’s time for a national ‘call to arms,’ because we cannot afford to let nearly one third of our kids fail.”

According to Cities in Crisis, written by Christopher B. Swanson, director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, graduating from high school in America’s largest cities amounts to a “coin toss.” It finds that only 52 percent of students in the principal school systems of the fifty largest cities complete high school with a diploma-a rate well below the national graduation rate of 70 percent, and below the 60.4 percent graduation rate for the average urban locale. And while only six of the fifty cities examined reach or exceed the national average, seventeen of the nation’s fifty largest cities have graduation rates lower than 50 percent.

Highest and Lowest Graduation Rates Among the Nation’s Fifty Largest Cities


Top Five                 

Bottom Five


Graduation Rate


Graduation Rate

Mesa, AZ

 77.1 %

Detroit, MI

24.9 %

San Jose, CA

77.0 %

Indianapolis, IN

30.5 %

Nashville-Davidson, Co., TN

77.0 %

Cleveland, OH

34.1 %

Colorado Springs, CO

76.0 %

Baltimore, MD

34.6 %

San Francisco, CA

73.1 %

Columbus, OH

40.9 %


Examining the differences in graduation rates between the urban and suburban segments of the same metropolitan areas, Swanson finds a seventeen-point “graduation gap” for fifty largest cities, similar to the fifteen-point gap between suburban and urban areas found for the nation as a whole.1

However, thirteen of the metropolitan areas studied had urban-suburban graduation gaps of 25 percentage points or more. In Baltimore and Columbus, students served by suburban systems were twice as likely as their urban peers to graduate from high school, as shown below.


Graduation Rate in Urban Districts

Graduation Rate in Suburban Districts

Urban-Suburban Gap

Baltimore, MD

34.6 %

81.5 %

47.0 %

Columbus, OH

40.9 %

82.9 %

42.0 %




“If three out of every 10 students in the nation failing to graduate is reason for concern, then the fact that just half of those educated in America’s largest cities are finishing high school truly raises cause for alarm,” the report concludes. “And the much higher rates of high school completion among their suburban counterparts-who may literally live and attend school right around the corner-place in a particularly harsh and unflattering light the deep undercurrents of inequity that plague American public education.”

More information on the report and the campaign is available at


1 Nationwide, the report finds that students in suburban (74.9 percent) and rural (73.2 percent) public high schools are more likely to graduate than students in the country’s urban public high schools (60.4 percent).

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.